Some of us love music while we work. Others avoid it like the plague. Let’s look at the science behind what music does to our brain, and if you should turn up or turn down the volume.

Music has power. It lifts us up. It energizes us. It helps us express complex emotions. It’s kind of like invisible magic. Yet, I’ve always avoided it like the plague if I needed to concentrate. 

Throughout my career, both academically and professionally, I’ve felt that when I was studying or working on any complex project, I needed silence or at least minimal background noise. 

I never understood my friends or colleagues who could study or work with music playing. Weren’t they hurting their ability to concentrate? Wasn’t it distracting? How could they focus? How could they retain any information? It made no sense. They were clearly nuts. 

However, it turns out that I may, in fact, have been wrong. 

Music Helps Us Learn

There is a mountain of evidence to suggest that music helps us focus. Numerous studies show that music has a positive impact on learning. Interestingly, this impact appears to be more significant for students with learning disabilities or people with poor spelling skills

Why is this? Music activates both the left and right brain at the same time, and the activation of both hemispheres maximizes learning and improves memory.

One Tune is Not Like the Other

All background music is not equal. It seems that the type of music matters. For example, the often referenced Mozart effect claims that listening to classical music, specifically Mozart, improves your spatial abilities and, ultimately, makes you “smarter.” And many people do find they study better with classical or even just instrumental music in the background. 

However, a 2006 study published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Science found that children performed better on a spatial aptitude test after listening to pop music by the British band, Blur, compared when they listened to music composed by Mozart. This is now known as the “Blur Effect.” 

So what does this mean? The style of music may not impact your cognitive abilities, but liking the music you listen to could.

Tempo and Intensity Matter

A 2013 study by Dr. Emma Gray, a cognitive-behavioral therapist, and Spotify found that listening to music in the range of 50 to 80 beats per minute (BPM) puts us into a more focused and productive state, ideal for learning, creativity, and studying. Higher BPMs can distract us.

But background music may not just be helping us study. Music can also improve our sleep. It can help us recall memories and emotions. And, it could also help us relax, especially during high-pressure times like prepping for an important exam. 

As mentioned earlier, music activates both the left and right brain at the same time, and the activation of both hemispheres can maximize learning and improve memory. In other words, peanut butter and jelly are both good, but they are better together.

Was I Right to Fear Facing the Music?

The reality is that studies investigating the relationship between learning outcomes and background music vary a lot. For example, a 2010 study by Lutz Jäncke and Pascale Sandmann found there is no impact from listening to music while you study or learn. Other studies found it negatively impacted learning capabilities. In other words, while music absolutely can be beneficial, there are times that it hurts our ability to study and retain information. 

Research shows that when you’re using your working memory, background music actually makes your short term memory worse. What is working memory? It’s when you are trying to hold or manipulate several pieces of information in your head at the same time. 

So trying to do that while listening to music (especially music with vocals), is hard. And it may be hurting your study session. According to a 2014 study published in Applied Cognitive Psychology, reading comprehension decreases when listening to music with lyrics

So if you are planning to read with background music, avoid music with lyrics.

Music has also been shown to affect people who are easily overstimulated, specifically when completing a more complex task. A 2006 study, “The effect of background music and background noise on the task performance of introverts and extraverts,” published in the Psychology of Music, showed that as tasks become more complex, background music created high arousal potential and negative effects. 

This means if you are easily stimulated, like me, you may be better off without background music when you study more complex material.

Ultimately, Background Music (or not) is a Personal Choice.

While I may not be 100% ready to jump on the background music bandwagon, if you are, we have you covered with some awesome playlists curated by Pocket Prep. 

Piano Remixes: From a cover of The Pixie’s Where Is My Mind to Queen’s We Will Rock You, this playlist has easily recognizable songs without the distraction of lyrics.

Electronic: Our Anodic Chill Vibes playlist is filled with a calming mix of electronic good vibes. 


Lo-Fi: If you want something downtempo and laid back, check out our Pocket Lo-Fi playlist. 

Check them out on Spotify and happy listening!